Watching the new Netflix series The Chair, I was struck by two metalinguistic comments, both made by the main character Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, chair of the English department, who consequently comes across as being a bit of a pedant. The first comment is about who/whom (which I’ll be speaking about tomorrow in my presentation at the sixth Prescriptivism conference in Vigo, Spain). The second is about the pronunciation of prescient.
David Duchovny, who is to substitute for a teacher who was penalised for having allegedly made the Hitler salute in class, pronounces the word prescient as /ˈprɛsɪənt/, upon which he is corrected by professor Kim, who says: “I think it’s pronounced /ˈprɛʃənt/, unless we’re English.” By which she means British, as indeed Duchovny responds by retorting: “Aren’t we speaking English?”
Professor Kim is right: the Oxford English Dictionary neatly distinguishes between a British and American English pronunciation. But I couldn’t helpt checking the Internet, and found an amazing number of YouTube videos giving advice on how to pronounce prescient, dating between 2015 and 2020. Does this signal the birth of a new usage problem?
… is sparked off by spotting an exclamation mark where a question would normally be expected. Or actually, by the vacuousness of the contents of the welcoming message found when booking into his hotel room. All this is part of one of John le Carré’s main characters’ interior monologue at the start of his novel A Delicate Truth (2013).
Unfortunately for my purposes – the paper which I am presenting at the Prescriptivism Conference in Vigo next week – this is the only metalinguistic comment that does not refer to accent, or “voice” as le Carré refers to it.
Practically all characters in the novel are defined in terms of their accents: “his carefully nurtured Glaswegian accent”, “his gentle Welsh lilt”, “drawling in upper-end English of the very best sort”, “a forthright British voice, educated, one of us”, “the officer-class voice”, “she sounded like an Essex schoolmistress”, “her voice not Welsh but old-fashioned fighting Irish”, his “own voice, but without its Foreign Office polish”: social class is clearly an issue in this novel.
But alas, no references to grammatical shibboleths or other usage problems that I might have added to my list of metalinguistic comments in English literature. Still, what I did find in this novel confirms le Carré’s interest in language commentary as a means of setting down his characters.
The Bridging the Unbridgeable project officially ended nearly five years ago, but almost all of us are presenting a paper at the next Prescriptivism Conference, held online (no fee!) at the University of Vigo from 23 – 25 September 2021. Here are the papers we will be presenting (listed in chronological order according to the conference programme):
Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Breaking the who/whom rule: the final taboo?
Viktorija Kostadinova, 150 years of ideas about language: the aims of metalinguistic works in American English
Alyssa Severin & Carmen Ebner, “It is still all icky and American”: investigating British and Australian English speakers’ attitudes towards verb conversions
Carmen Ebner, “Your not my type”: effects of stigmatized linguistic variation in online dating
Theresa Heyd & Morana Lukač, The making of linguistic authority in the postdigital age
Morana Lukač & Adrian Stenton, What guides copy‐editors’ decisions? From grammatical to sociolinguistic determinants
And there will be many more interesting papers – not forgetting the plenaries! – besides. You will find the programme as well as the abstracts, here. And remember, no fees!
Reading the work of my younger academic colleagues, I get the feeling that whilst is making a comeback. Why would that be the case?
Strangely though, I don’t see this perceived increased frequency reflected in usage as we can access it through the Google ngram interface (I checked it for British English), nor does the OED record any instances more recent than those that are over a century old. So what is going on here?
I expect readers of this blog will also be interested in the grammar by Robert Lowth (1762 and many later editions). And if so, does any of you possess an original copy, from whatever date? If you do, please help me find out more about the grammar’s original owners. As explained on the Robert Lowth blog, I’ve set myself the more than ambitious task to identify as many of the owners of the 34,000 copies that were printed as possible.
Yesterday, the Guardian posted a call asking readers to express their personal thoughts on what the terms “working class” and “middle class” actually mean. These are terms well-known from sociolinguistics, so I’ll be curious to so how readers will respond.
The distinction is actually much more fine-grained, and has been so since Labov’s famous sociostratificational study carried out in New York and published in 1966. And to place the question into the context of a paper I’m preparing for the sixth Prescriptivism conference to be held in Vigo, Spain, in September this year, I’d like to refer here to Martin Amis’s latest novel called Inside Story, where on p. 313 he describes a character as “upper middle, yet her voice was […] pleasingly accentless ” . Another character is described on the previous page as “Minor public school with pretensions. He sounded the t in often”.
So: I bet a lot of comments will be coming in, and I’m looking forward to the article as it will appear on Sunday.
Two weeks ago, I reported on the opening of Bryan Garner’s exhibition Taming the Tongue at the Grolier Club in New York. The video of the event is now available online. So if you wish to know more about this amazing exhibition, you will be able to watch it here.
But the website includes a whole lot more, such as the exhibition’s online tour and many other very interesting Grolier Club events.
Two of my colleagues at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics are working on the collocation of dat “that” and als “if” in sentences like Hij dacht dat als hij drukte, het luikje open zou gaan (“He thought that if he pushed, the trap would open”). In Dutch, the combination of two conjunctions is considered unacceptable, and writing manuals brand its use as a stylistic error.
The question was put to me whether this was also a usage problem in English, even though the construction is apparently regularly used. An English example they gave is the following:
De Saussure was so determined to have the mountain conquered that if he was not to be the one to do so, someone else should […]
Doing a full-text search in the HUGE database produced many similar examples, so this that if construction seems quite acceptable. But I promised to consult the readers of this blog, so my question is whether this sentence is considered problematical at all, and if so, in what variety of English.
If Dutch and English do indeed appear to take different stands on the acceptability of the construction, I would be interested in finding out why this would be the case. And also, whether the construction is considered fine (or not) in other languages than English or Dutch.
Like my colleagues, I’d be very interested in hearing what you think!
For all those interested in the relationship between usage, usage guides and linguistic norms, this book has just come out. With warmest thanks to the editors Luisella Caon, Marion Elenbaas and Janet Grijzenhout, as well as to all contributing authors: Marina Dossena, Raymond Hickey, Wim van der Wurff, Dick Smakman, Terttu Nevalainen, Carol Percy, Marijke van der Wal, Thijs Porck, Andreas Krogull, Gijsbert Rutten, Wim Tigges, Joan Beal and David Crystal.